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‘Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words’ opens at Library of Congress

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From left are a reporter, Rosa Parks, Louise Tappes and Mary Sims in 1976. Photograph taken to commemorate the renaming of 12th Street in Detroit, Michigan, to “Rosa Parks Boulevard.” Jason Lovette, photographer. Visual Materials from the Rosa Parks Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Brett Zongker 

Library of Congress 

Rosa Parks. Photo credit: Donna Terek, photographer. March 6, 1993. Photograph. Visual Materials from the Rosa Parks Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress © The Detroit News, 1993

Rosa Parks, the Civil Rights icon made famous for her refusal to give up her seat to a White man on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in December 1955, is often mischaracterized as a quiet seamstress, with little attention paid to her full life story. 

A new Library of Congress exhibition, “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words,” reveals the real Rosa Parks was a seasoned activist with a militant spirit forged over decades of challenging inequality and injustice. 

This is the first exhibition of the Rosa Parks Collection, which opened in December and includes her personal writings, reflections, photographs, records and memorabilia. The collection was placed on loan with the library in 2014 and became a permanent gift in 2016 through the generosity of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. 

“Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words” will immerse visitors in Parks’ words, reflections, handwritten notes and photographs from throughout her life, allowing her to tell her own life story. Four sections of the exhibition will explore Parks’ early life and activism, the Montgomery bus boycott, the fallout from Parks’ arrest for her family and their move to Detroit, and the global impact of her life. 

“Rosa Parks lived a life dedicated to equal rights and social justice, and she helped change the country with the example she set,” said Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. “Our new exhibition is an important milestone for Rosa Parks to tell her story for new generations through her own words and pictures now preserved at the Library of Congress.” 

Early Childhood Incidents and Experiences are the topic of this letter written by Rosa Parks. Provided by Library of Congress

Born and reared in Alabama during the Jim Crow era of legally mandated segregation, Rosa Louise McCauley was taught by her grandfather “never to accept mistreatment.” She married Raymond Parks, a charter member of the NAACP branch in Montgomery, in 1932, and together they were early activists for racial equality. They would organize to free the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s. In 1943, Rosa Parks became secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, and the branch focused on voter registration and cases of racial violence and discrimination. 

After the bus incident, she was punished with death threats, unemployment and poverty – but remained committed to the struggle for social justice. 

Throughout her life, Parks would advocate for Civil Rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, prisoners’ rights and Black youth, and she spoke out against apartheid and other injustices around the world. 

Rosa Parks at the White House with President Bill Clinton after receiving the 1996 Presidential Medal of Freedom, Washington, D.C. Visual materials from the Rosa Parks Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Highlights from the exhibition include: 

  • The Parks’ family Bible – being exhibited for the first time; 
  • Photographs and letters documenting Parks’ family and early years; 
  • Parks’ account of “keeping vigil” with her grandfather to protect their home from Klansmen; 
  • A manuscript in which Parks recalls a childhood encounter with a white boy who threatened to hit her and how she responded; 
  • Parks’ personal reflections on her arrest for refusing to surrender her seat on a bus to a White passenger on Dec. 1, 1955, recounting the emotional toll of incarceration; 
  • Letters and documentation of the Montgomery bus boycott and its consequences for those who joined the protest; 
  • Political buttons, brochures, photographs and letters documenting the Civil Rights Movement from the Parks papers and the vast NAACP records at the Library; 
  • A handmade blue dress from Parks’ wardrobe, on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture; 
  • Correspondence to Rep. John Conyers of Michigan when Parks worked on his congressional staff from 1965 to 1988; 
  • The Spingarn Medal citation, the NAACP’s highest honor, awarded to Parks in 1979; 
  • The Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded to Parks at the White House in 1996; 
  • The Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Parks in 1999. 

The book, “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words,” is a companion to the exhibition and reveals the Civil Rights icon through her private manuscripts and handwritten notes. The book, published by the University of Georgia Press in association with the Library of Congress, includes more than 80 color and black-and-white images from Parks’ collection  –  many appearing in print for the first time 

“Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words” is made possible by support from the Ford Foundation and Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, with additional support from AARP, HISTORY®, Joyce and Thomas Moorehead and The Capital Group.  

The library is inviting visitors to Explore America’s Changemakers through a series of exhibitions, events and programs. Another ongoing exhibition drawing from the library’s collections tells the story of the largest reform movement in American history – the more than 70-year fight to win voting rights for women – in “Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote.” 

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